Music machines

After all the romance, mystery, and sensuality is stripped away, a musical instrument is a tool, a machine. I wonder how many people who play (say) the piano or guitar machines never learn another music machine? I suspect that, out of most of the people who take lessons, the largest group (after that of people who give up after a few lessons, when they find that it’s hard work) is the group of people who know how to operate just one instrument. Learning how to play additional musical instruments will make the operator a better musician, just as knowing a language other than your birth tongue makes it easier to learn further languages, and how scribbling with Crayolas makes it easier to write with a fountain pen.

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Most musical instruments are designed to make one of 12 noises at a time — notes — plus multiples (and fractions) of those same noises — octaves. Frills like tonal color and percussive undertones are just that: frills, ornamentation, refinements. Some instruments will play notes in-between the notes; think of the scooping sound of a trombone or the wavering smear of a theremin. Others allow the operator to play more than one noise at a time, like the vast banks of pipes in an organ or the multiple strings of an autoharps, but most of these are really musical instrument systems; a piano has 28 discrete elements that will each make a single noise, a violin has four, and a guitar has six. (Usually.)

Composers are people who write instructions for musical technicians to follow. Some of these technicians have a firm style of operating their machines, and everything they play sounds a bit like them. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica sounds like — well you can tell it’s Stevie on that harp. On the other hand, some composers will develop a style that makes everything they write distinctive, and no matter who’s at the controls, you can tell that something was written by Bach or Dylan. Truly special performances can happen when both of these things occur at the same time.

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One could argue that specializing on one machine will make a musician too specialized, and every problem will therefore have a solution with the same application: how to carry out the composer’s instructions on this particular machine. However, dividing oneself between several instruments can also be a crutch, where the musician fails to specialize. Again pulling statistics out of my ass, the best place is probably somewhere in the middle. Most composers will have a favored instrument (often the piano), and most virtuoso players of a particular instrument have at least dabbled in other machines.

Even though I’m far, far better an operator of the guitar machine, my root instrument is always going to be the piano for the simple reason that I learned how to read and write music on it. When I think of a major chord or a minor seventh chord on the guitar, there’s a part of me that thinks of how to play it on the piano machine.

There’s a musical instrument machine that almost every human being has built-in, and that’s the one consisting of the mouth, lungs, and trachea: the voice. Music in my head always looks a little like how I would play it on the piano, or sometimes the guitar. I wonder how music looks to someone who learned how to read and write music when singing?


This article bears a distant relation to a post I wrote here.

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